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Volume 18, Number 3May/June 1967

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The Alhambra

On a hill above Granada: "the glory and the wonder of the civilized world."

Written by Paul F. Hoye
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

From the high green ridge above, or from the white city below, the Alhambra is a decided disappointment. Its walls are massive, harsh and faded. Its buildings crowd one another from view. Its tiled roofs slant off at improbable angles and clashing planes. To visitors raised on Washington Irving's memories of tinkling fountains and moonlit marble, or lured by visions of secret gardens and palaces of dazzling and delicate beauty, it is simply impossible that this—this great ugly pile of peeling stone shouldering its way out of a forest of English elms—should be the Alhambra.

And they are quite right. What you see from above or below is not the Alhambra that has inspired travelers and poets for nearly 800 years. To find that Alhambra—the Alhambra that one entranced writer said was "indisputably, the most curious and in some ways the most marvelous building that exists in the whole world"—you must leave the high green ridge and the white city and look for a graveled path that winds through a green park to an arched stone portal called the Gate of Justice. There you must enter, climb a little to the summit of a plateau that looks off toward the white peaks of the mountains beyond, and begin to search. It won't take very long. Just listen for splashing fountains and watch for a long green pool beneath a sky of pure Spanish blue...

To describe the Alhambra in detail is rather like dissecting a butterfly: you may learn a lot about it, but somehow you lose the magic. And yet the magic itself is a challenge. Of what does it consist? The play of southern sunlight on pools of dark green water? Cypresses thrashing in the rain against a black and billowing sky? Shadows from a silver moon traced on white marble? A red rose reaching up from a quiet green bower?

In the years since Irving mounted his horse in Seville and braved the hazards of the wild, bandit-ridden Sierra Nevadas simply to live and write in the Alhambra, hundreds of writers have dutifully sailed off to Spain to climb the citadel's graveled paths and, standing before it in stunned pleasure, try to answer that very question. Surprisingly, most have succeeded. For there is no mystery to the Alhambra. It is beautiful because the Moors, like the Greeks so long before them, learned to shape the color and texture of stone according to the disciplines of harmony, proportion and simplicity and then decorate it accordingly. "The Moors," as A.E. Calvert said, "ever regarded what architects hold to be the first principle of architecture—to decorate construction, never to construct decoration."

The Alhambra is set on a long, wooded hill rising some 500 feet above Granada like the Acropolis of Athens. Above and to the east is a high mountain ridge brushed with snow. Below is a vast and verdant plain stretching off to the Medial terranean some 40 miles away. On the north, sharp cliffs plunge down to a swift, shallow stream bubbling out of the mountains; on the south a gentle slope fades into a park of magnificent, if incongruous English elms—a gift to Spain in the 18th century from the Duke of Marlborough, hero of the War of the Spanish Succession. And immediately below, spilling out of the foothills and onto the green plain, like a river into a delta, is Granada, with its old, narrow, sometimes cobbled streets, its small white houses and the high spires of famous cathedrals.

It is from Granada that most visitors first see the Alhambra. Sometimes it is from the narrow curved road by the river at the base of a great cliff where an enormous wedge of stone has been cut out by some ancient storm. Sometimes it is from the Plaza of Saint Nicholas from which the Alhambra, the Generalife and the whole vista of the Sierra Nevadas are spread before you. Whichever it is, the first effect is the same: a sense of dismay that this cheerless, almost monastic silhouette is the famous Alhambra.

Even up close, as you pass through an arched gate into the elm forest and approach the fortress, a sense of disappointment persists. At close quarters, in fact, the Alhambra is even less attractive. The walls, red from a distance, are a faded, splotchy orange; the Gate of Justice is unimpressive; the Wine Gate is scarcely noticeable: and the first building you see, the Palace of Charles V, is a disaster; square, squat, impregnable and dour, it would serve nicely as a London bank.

At last, however, having turned over your tickets to polite uniformed guards, you slip into a dark chapel with a handsome wood ceiling and pass through it into the Arabian Palace where, in a sudden flash of sunlight, doubts and disappointment dissolve and you see at last what has evoked more than seven centuries of lyrical praise.

The first thing you see in the Arabian Palace is the Court of the Myrtles. It is a long narrow courtyard paved in white marble with a shallow pool flanked with low green hedges. Latticed windows weathered to a deep chocolate brown peer down from beige walls and, at the north end, the square shape of a turreted tower rises against the sky. There are slender pillars and arches and two fountains bubbling over into basins. In the depths of the dark green water schools of goldfish dart with trained precision toward visitors to wait for food, their scales flashing like red-gold sequins.

It is the essence of simplicity, this courtyard. But the impact is overpowering. In this simple blend of white marble and green water, of gentle curve and sharp line, of latticed wood and sculptured stucco, the ancient artists have set the tone for the wonderland of courts and gardens and halls that follows.

From the Court of the Myrtles, visitors can go in several directions, but most, almost irresistibly, it seems, head straight for the Hall of the Ambassadors, where, the guidebooks tell you, the enthroned kings of Granada greeted emissaries to the kingdom. This marvelous room, tucked beneath the huge Tower of the Comares, is a perfect square with a domed ceiling 60 feet high. Eight arched windows offer a panoramic view of the Vega, and the walls are crocheted into writhing patterns of Koranic verse, religious commentary, lines of poetry and, over and over, its builder's bitter acknowledgment that "there is no conqueror but God." For a moment, as you pause to absorb it, there is silence and from across the valley, you can hear laughter of boys playing in a schoolyard, the tinny echo of a church bell and the murmur of water splashing its way among the rocks in the river below.

By now, of course, the Alhambra has you in its spell. After this you wander in a sort of bemused trance from one passage to another, not really sure where you are or how you got there. You only know that one enchanting place follows another: the Queen's Patio with four slim cypress trees and the ominous iron gate

where, say the legends, Juana the Mad was confined; the apartments in which Washington Irving composed the sketches and impressions that were to make the Alhambra so famous; a small angular garden rich with the smell of orange trees and the gurgle of a fountain in the center. And everywhere you see the miracles of carving: on walls, on capitals, on arches. It is stucco carved into lace, a magnificently simple arrangement "of the straight, the curved, the inclined," repeated over and over in patterns at once geometrically and artistically perfect.

For such a small area—the Arabian Palaces occupy no more than a fraction of the hilltop—the succession of rooms and courtyards seems endless. There are the royal baths, with tiles of gold and blue and red, and the vast baths still full of pure mountain water. There is a small open courtyard between palaces where, on one bare, insignificant wall, Arab craftsmen created a masterpiece of pure decoration: a simple mass of decorative inscriptions and vegetation entwined like a wild tangle of tropical growth. And, in haphazard succession, there are the harem, with its inevitable, if unlikely, hints of exotic passions and exciting intrigues; the Mirador of the Lindejara where the Sultana, lolling on silken cushions, looked out at Granada; and the Hall of the Two Sisters where enormous plaster stalactites drip from a high ceiling like icicles in a cavern.

There are other wonders too: the Hall of the Abencerrajes, where, the legends say, one mad king cut off the heads of his sons; the Hall of Kings; the Hall of Queens; and a profusion of capitals, friezes, medallions, ceilings, domes, ribbon work and dadoes. Lastly there is the Court of the Lions.

According to the anonymous contributors to the Guide Bleu, the Court of the Lions is "the most precious example of Arab art existing in Spain." According to Marino Antequera, author of the best of the local guidebooks, it is to Granada "what the square of Saint Mark's is to Venice ... Notre Dame to Paris... St. Peter's to Rome." The writers are correct. But Senor Antequera's statement suggests a scale and a grandeur that the court, or for that matter, the whole palace does not have. Indeed, if there is one false impression that descriptions and photographs have created, it is that the Alhambra is huge. It isn't. It is small and delicately proportioned, exquisite rather than magnificent. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the Court of the Lions.

"There is something about a genuine work of art," writes Senor Antequera, "which escapes all possible imitation and reproduction ... such is the sensation we feel before this Grenadine court."

How true. Like the first sight of the Court of the Myrtles, or the Hall of the Ambassadors, the Court of the Lions, with its perfect proportions, its arcades, its slim columns, its tracery, its arches and, in the middle, its famous fountain with those odd, supposedly leonine animals bristling like mastiffs below, is, quite simply, stunning.

Probably everyone who has seen the Alhambra has eventually come to ask: "What was it like before?" As they emerge from the wonders of the palace and confront the sprawling jumble of towers, churches, hotels, and shops that now clutter the site of the Muslim citadel, they can't help wondering what it was like before the Christians clumped up the hills and began four centuries of alteration and neglect. Was it all like the palace within? A vision of courtyards and gardens and pools? Great palaces standing in green parks? With fierce warriors riding their spirited desert-bred steeds through cobbled streets? And silk-veiled maidens peering out through latticed windows?

There are those who think not. Senor Antequera, who impatiently dismisses most romantic notions about the Alhambra as nonsense, believes that what is left is really all there ever was and that the Christians actually saved it from decay, rather than destroyed it. And if aerial views suggest that he is wrong in believing that the construction of Charles' palace did not wipe out a large part of the Arab masterpiece, he still offers a convincing argument that the whole crest of the hill could not possibly have equaled the splendor of the palace. The palace, after all, was the king's and it would have been here that the full splendor of the age would have been concentrated. Furthermore, with thousands of troops quartered within the walls—some say 40,000—it would be unlikely that there would have been much room left for many other palaces.

But even if this is so, the Alhambra, with its great wall and turreted towers newly built of the red clay that gave it its name—"The Red Fortress"—must have been a striking sight. And the palace itself must have been fantastic. In those days the now mellow walls glowed with rich blue, vermillion and red. Through the stained glass that filled the windows, the sunlight poured into the chambers with the muted and mysterious radiance of a cathedral. On the marble floors lay piles of precious carpets and silken cushions. Even the very air was enriched—with the scent of orange trees in the gardens, and rare perfumes seeping up through vents in marble floors. And of course, there were the people too: servants pattering about with trays of fruit and splendid pots of a new and exotic beverage called coffee; harem girls lounging in languid splendor by low windows near cool gardens; ambassadors bringing terms from other rulers; generals telling tales of battles; nobles launching fresh intrigues; and, of course, kings—waiting and wondering when the end would come.

With the reconquest the end did come and with it the decay that would go on for centuries. First the Christians altered it, then abandoned it—to smugglers, gypsies, and bandits. Soldiers came and went. Winter winds howled through it. Summer suns baked it. The fountains went dry, the pool cracked, and weeds flourished in the gardens. So it went until, in the 19th century, Washington Irving came to write the tales that would bring the world to its rescue and launch the work that has at last begun to restore the incomparable glory of its incomparable past.

The High Gardens

East of the Alhambra and across a deep ravine there stands on a wind-swept hillside one of Granada's loveliest monuments. It is called the Generalife.

Not much is known about the Generalife. The name comes from a Spanish corruption of "Jennat-al-Arif," which has been loosely translated as "the high gardens." and it apparently served as a sort of summerhouse to which the rulers of the Alhambra could retreat during the noon hours of Andalusia's fierce summers. It was formerly linked to the Alhambra by a bridge, now vanished, and a path, now closed, and here and there are traces of the same decorative genius that enriched the Alhambra.

Other than that the history of the Generalife is a blank. No one knows who built it who stayed there, or whether it had any function beyond that of a minor retreat for the kings of Granada. Furthermore no one really cares about it. The authoritative Guide Bleu, for example, dismisses it in 43 cool lines as having pretty gardens and little else.

!t is true that the gardens are the loveliest features of the Generalife; as its name suggests, that was the intention. But it is .not true that there is no more to it than gardens. First of all, although the architecture is slight, there are decorations that one writer said are "in no respect inferior to those of the Alhambra." There are also some excellent coffered ceilings and a handsome pavilion. But the most important thing is the marvelous arrangement of simple elements into an exciting whole: grass and shrubs, sunlight and clouds, silver arches of water, tranquil pools and a few arches of fragile delicacy to frame it all against the sky.

The entrance to the Generalife is a sanded path that winds in a muffled silence through rows of towering cypress trees, enters a coral gate, ducks under a canopy of oleander bushes and ends at a shabby white building with a more than slight resemblance to an old French farmhouse. It is the first of several rickety structures that were clumsily built upon whatever remained of the graceful Arab pavilions that had apparently been here before. After that come the gardens.

Like the Alhambra, the Generalife seems to straggle off without design or order. Staircases go up and down and around; terraces overlap; fountains bubble up out of nowhere, streams flow away and vanish. Yet if there is an air of confusion it is charming confusion and not at all unplanned.

Depending on how you count, there are at least ten levels to the Generalife, each a different shape, each offering, through a profusion of vine and shrub and tree, a progressively more breathtaking view of the Alhambra, Granada, the Vega and the Sierra Nevada mountains. In addition there is a great formal garden of trimmed hedges and lush orange trees that faces the edge of the ravine at a point where the Alhambra's massive walls and deep moat are only a few hundred feet away. One of its chief delights are the ramps adjoining three short flights of steps that descend from the highest terrace. The ramps, hollowed out and lined with curved tile, create small streams that gush down the top of the wall like rapids in a river and boil up in whirlpools in basins at the landings. Above all there is the world-famous Court of the Pool.

This pool is probably as famous as the gargoyles at Notre Dame. With pavilions at each end, arched and decorated, and with the silvery jets of water forming arches over the rippling pool, it is not only the heart of the Generalife, but one of the loveliest gardens in the world. If for no other reason than to house this one spot or to provide a shaded platform from which to enjoy it. the continued maintenance of the Generalife is justified.

"Who Conquered, Ruled And Passed Away"

On a raw winter's day in the closing years of the 15th century a weary Moorish king reined in his horse in the arid hills of Andalusia and turned to look one last time at the great red fortress on the hill above Granada. Then, with a sigh, he rode on into obscurity, leaving behind one poignant line of poetry, eight centuries of history and a magnificent monument to a "brave, intelligent and graceful people who conquered, ruled and passed away." The story of the Arabs in Spain, a story as sad as it is glorious, had come to an end.

Islam had come to Spain in a quite different mood. Under the banner of the Prophet and the leadership of a general named Tarik, armies of North African Arabs had stormed ashore at Gibraltar with all the faith and fury of their Bedouin progenitors sweeping out of Arabia and had marched north with the express intention of conquering Europe. Twenty years later they very nearly succeeded. Having routed the remnants of Roderick's decaying Visigoths, they swarmed across the Pyrenees to meet Charles Manel and his Franks in a battle to decide if the Occident or the Orient would rule Europe thereafter. The Franks, as it turned out, prevailed and the Arabs retired to wait for another opportunity and, in the interim, create one of the world's more memorable civilizations.

Reviewing that civilization today it seems impossible that the Arabs could have ever lost Spain—or that the Spanish. Christians or not, would have wanted them to. For the Arabs were not intolerent rulers; to the contrary, they reigned with a wisdom and justice often superior to anything the Spanish had ever known. Under Muslim rule, moreover. Spain achieved levels of wealth and artistic splendor that were seldom to be reached again. Trade and agriculture flourished. Medicine, science and the arts thrived Architecture reached new heights of beauty. To the universities of Toledo, Cordova, Seville and Granada came scholars from throughout Europe and the Orient, some to stay and add their knowledge to the rich pool already gathered in those places, others to return to their native lands and further spread the fame of this new and exciting civilization. By the 10th century, when Abd-al-Rahman III of the Omayyad Dynasty established the Caliphate of Cordova, what had been a mere outpost on the frontiers of the Muslim empire had become not only the most brilliant center of learning in Europe but also the capital of Islam itself.

Unhappily, this period was also the beginning of the end. As one man's body rejects the skin of another no matter how carefully grafted, so Christian Spain had rejected Muslim Spain. Although Spain had never known such a golden age Islam never quite took root in Spain. Despite nearly four centuries of occupation—longer than the Normans had ruled England—the Muslims were never able to placate the deep hatred of their Christian subjects. However willing Christian artisans may have been to lavish their art on the mosques, the palaces, the gardens of Islam, and however happy they were to share and enjoy the prosperity and tranquillity of this most refined, graceful and charming era. they never for a day forgot that these were intruders on Spanish soil—aliens who must some day be driven away. In the 11th century, with the recapture of Toledo by Alphonso VI, that began to happen.

The Arabs in Spain had never truly united. Although there were periods of harmony, they were more often engaged in pointless but savage quarrels among themselves. When, in fact, the Christian kings began to pose a serious threat, the Arabs were so weak they had to ask the Almoravides, a North African Berber dynasty, to come to their aid. The Almoravides came, crushed a major Christian uprising but promptly took over Spain themselves. In 1174 the Almoravides were in turn defeated by other Berbers, the Almohades.

Although such internal warfare was by no means unique in Muslim history, it was fatal in Spain. By wasting their strength and wealth in fruitless struggles among themselves, they permitted the Christians to negotiate strong alliances, to form powerful armies and, in the 11th century, to launch a series of campaigns to drive the Arabs out. The Arabs did not surrender easily; this was their land too. But, bit by bit, they had to retreat, first from northern Spain, then from central Spain until, in the 13th century, their once extensive domains were cut to a few scattered kingdoms deep in the barren mountains of Andalusia—where for some 200 years longer they would endure and thrive.

It is both odd and poignant that it was then, in the last 200 years or so of their rule, that the Arabs created that extravagantly lovely civilization for which they are most famous. It seems as if in their slow retreat to the south they suddenly realized that they were entirely alone, Spain was not their home and neither, now, were the African lands from which they had come. Cut off from the one by religion, and from the other by time, they had become, as Irving wrote, "a nation without a country." Yet instead of accepting this as the inevitable fate of conquerors, the Moors, in a gesture of magnificent defiance, calmly set about building an even lovelier civilization than that which they had already spread across most of the Iberian Peninsula. Then, as their story drew to a close, they crowned it with the Alhambra, that small citadel that one writer has called the "glory and the wonder of the civilized world."

In 1238. a noble named Muhammad Abou al-Ahmar ascended the throne of Granada. Educated, compassionate, wise. Muhammad the First, as he called himself, set about strengthening and preserving his small kingdom. He established order. He reformed the courts. He erected hospitals, cared for the poor, founded schools and colleges, built public baths, improved irrigation and agriculture and encouraged commerce. Once, to buy safety for his people when King Ferdinand of Aragon at the head of superior forces laid siege to Granada, he slipped out of the city secretly, rode to Ferdinand's tent and humbly offered to become the King's vassal in return for peace. Ferdinand accepted the offer and rode away leaving Granada untouched and Muhammad more popular than ever.

But if wise, submission was also difficult—particularly when Ferdinand called on him to implement the agreement by providing troops to help the Christians against Muslims in siege of Seville in 1248. Loyally. Muhammad complied and Seville fell to the Christians. But returning to Granada where cheering crowds hailed him as conqueror he disclosed the turmoil in his heart in that short sad reply that he was to adopt as a motto and inscribe upon the walls of the Alhambra: "There is no conqueror but God."

In the months that followed. Muhammad came to realize that that the truce he had purchased so dearly for Granada was not permanent and that lasting peace between Christian and Muslim was by then impossible. So, about 1248. he began to erect the great fortress that was to become so famous. It is doubtful that Muhammad expressly intended the Alhambra to be a monument to the Muslim era in Spain; he probably intended to build no more than a fortress from which he could protect his shrinking domains and a refuge from the trials of his kingship. But whether by design or accident, there grew up behind the great walls a remarkable series of delicately lovely buildings, quiet courtyards, limpid pools and hidden gardens, the whole immersed in a cool green forest where streams rippled down shaded paths into the valley.

Later, after Muhammad's death, and especially during the reign of his grandson, Yusuf, who completed it between 1333 and 1354. the beauty of the citadel inspired the nobles of Granada to rebuild the city in its image. They erected palaces, halls and mosques of great size and beauty and adorned them with precious woods, rich paintings and carpets and lovely frescoes, From the gushing waters of the River Darrow they piped in enough water to not only irrigate their fields and water their gardens but to fill pools and fountains in the city with the music of water day and night. "Granada in the reign of Yusuf," wrote one Arabian visitor, "was as a silver vase filled with emeralds..."

Meanwhile, outside Granada, the Christian kings waited. In relentless succession they had retaken Toledo, Cordova, and Seville. Only Granada survived.

But then, in 1482. in an absurd quarrel over a new addition to the king's harem, the kingdom split into two hostile factions. Almost simultaneously, cathedral bells in Castile and Aragon. Spain's strongest Christian kingdoms, announced the marriage of their sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabella. After that the end came swiftly. On January 2. 1492, at the very peak of its strength. Granada suddenly, shamefully fell. Ferdinand and Isabella rode into the Alhambra to hoist the banner of Christian Spam above it and the exiled Boabdil, the last king, turned and rode into extinction with what the poets have since called "the last sigh of the Moor." For although the Arabs lingered on for a few more years, the pressure of social ostracism and persecution quickly reduced them to a timid, impotent minority. Then came the Inquisition and after that expulsion. The annihilation was complete. Never, in fact, as one writer said, "was the annihilation of a nation more complete." Except for a few mosques, some fragments of stone and one nearly perfect edifice on a green hill above Granada, the Arabs and all their history vanished as if they had never been.

This article appeared on pages 13-25 of the May/June 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1967 images.